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Saturday, February 27, 2016

Genealogical Insight: Finding Naturalization Records in the Courts

By Unknown or not provided - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,
There is are some great divides in the process of naturalization in the United States. First, until the United States became an independent country, immigration was subject to the laws and regulations of the each of European sovereign nations claiming land in America. So, depending on which part of the country your ancestors lived in, they may have been from England, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Russia or some other country but they came to America and settled according to those laws in effect where they settled. It is also important to realize the obvious; if someone moved from England to New England during colonial times, they did not immigrate. They stayed in the same country and merely moved from one part of the country to another.

Naturalization, as opposed to the process of immigration, is the legal process by which a non-citizen acquires citizenship or nationality in the country once immigration has occurred. In other words, immigration is how the foreign citizen gains entrance into the country and naturalization happens when the immigrant decides to become a citizen. Here I am writing about the naturalization processes of the United States and how a genealogist goes about researching whether or not an ancestor went through the naturalization process in the U.S. courts. If you wish to know more about immigration or emigration records please see the book my co-authors and I have written giving a detailed introduction to immigration and emigration. The book is as follows:

Hansen, Holly T., Ruth E. Maness, Arlene H. Eakle, James L. Tanner, Locating Ancestors in the Old CountryCreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2015.

The book is available on or from

Since it is obvious that becoming a citizen of the United States did not become possible until its independence from England, the focus of finding naturalization records begins after 1789, when the United States began to function as a country under the U.S. Constitution. First of all, not every person living in the boundaries of the newly created United States of America automatically became a citizen. Beginning in 1790 naturalization was reserved only to "free white persons" with two years of residency. In 1848 the treaty ending the Mexican War guaranteed citizenship to the Mexican subjects in the territories acquired from Mexico. However, it was only after the U.S. courts removed the racial qualifications from the naturalization process that the Mexicans became full citizens. As time progressed, the laws and requirements for citizenship changed dramatically. In fact, the changes occur so frequently, that it presently necessary to have a daily status update on the immigration and naturalization policies of the United States to keep up with the changes.

Citizenship is a legally conferred status and not necessarily an automatic status. A citizen has rights not given to those who are not citizens and are considered "aliens." A citizen of the United States is taxed differently, has the right to vote, has some advantages in higher education, can participate in the elective process and is eligible to run for certain offices, such as president of the United States. For example, native americans or Indians living in the United States were not given citizenship until 1924 with the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act.

A child born to U.S. citizens was automatically considered a citizen as a result of the language of the 1868 Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. However, a child born to U.S. citizens outside of the boundaries of the United States or one with a parent who was a citizen of another country could have dual citizenship. Even though a person who becomes a citizen of the United States is required to renounce any prior allegiance to another country, this does not necessarily mean that the person loses his or her citizenship in that country. 

From a genealogical standpoint, the intricacies of the naturalization laws may be interesting but in this special case, a general knowledge of the law is all that is necessary to understand the documents and benefit from the information they contain.  

Basic information about naturalization records can be obtained from the U.S. National Archives article, "Naturalization Records" based on the following article:

Claire Prechtel-Kluskens, "The Location of Naturalization Records," The Record, Vol. 3, No. 2, pp. 21-22 (Nov. 1996)
Further links and information is also found in the Research Wiki article, "United States Naturalization and Citizenship." In almost every state in the United States there are also books that contain information about the location naturalization records. To find a book for a particular state, do a search in for "location naturalization records.

Until 1906, an alien could become a citizen by applying to any court of record in the United States. A court of record in this context included any trial court of general jurisdiction in the state and was not confined to the "Courts of Record" definition used by attorneys today which refers only to courts of appeal. Here is a quote from the U.S. National Archives concerning the types of courts that could grant citizenship.
From the first naturalization law passed by Congress in 1790 through much of the 20th century, an alien could become naturalized in any court of record. Thus, most people went to the court most convenient to them, usually a county court. The names and types of courts vary from State to State. The names and types of courts have also varied during different periods of history--but may include the county supreme, circuit, district, equity, chancery, probate, or common pleas court. Most researchers will find that their ancestors became naturalized in one of these courts. A few State supreme courts also naturalized aliens, such as the supreme courts of Indiana, Idaho, Iowa, Maine, New Jersey, and South Dakota. Aliens who lived in large cities sometimes became naturalized in aFederal court, such as a U.S. district court or U.S. circuit court.
It is easy to see that the challenge to the genealogical researcher is to locate the records of any of these different classifications of courts that could possibly contain records of the naturalization process concerning an ancestor. One of the easiest ways to determine if a person had become a citizen is to find an entry in a U.S. Census record. Here is an example of a person born in Ireland where the notation in the 1910 U.S. Census record indicates "NA" or naturalization in 1852.

Another way to discover naturalization is to find the ancestor on a voting list. 

Locating the court records is another challenge for the genealogical researcher. I have written extensively on this particular subject but you can find detailed information in the Research Wiki beginning with the article, "United States Court Records" and looking further for the subject of court records in every state and county. 

The first laws concerning naturalization were passed in 1790 and outlined a two-step process. Quoting from the U.S. National Archives:
Congress passed the first law regulating naturalization in 1790 (1 Stat. 103). As a general rule, naturalization was a two-step process that took a minimum of 5 years. After residing in the United States for 2 years, an alien could file a "declaration of intent" (so-called "first papers") to become a citizen. After 3 additional years, the alien could "petition for naturalization." After the petition was granted, a certificate of citizenship was issued to the alien. These two steps did not have to take place in the same court. As a general rule, the "declaration of intent" generally contains more genealogically useful information than the "petition." The "declaration" may include the alien's month and year (or possibly the exact date) of immigration into the United States.
My own experience in searching in archives for naturalization records have sometimes been disappointing. The entire document can consist of a single piece of paper with little or no information about the ancestor other than the country or origin.

There were major exceptions to the law beginning 1790 as follows:

  • From 1790 to 1922, wives and children of naturalized men automatically became citizens
  • From 1790 to 1940 children of naturalized men became citizens automatically
  • From 1824 to 1906 minor aliens who lived in the United States for 5 years preceding their 23rd birthday could file a declaration and petition at the same time
  • From 1862 honorably discharged U.S. Army veterans could file a petition for naturalization after only one year residence in the United States. Various other specific provisions concerning veterans were passed from 1918 until 1952. 
Don't get too upset if you are unable to find a naturalization record. As the U.S. National Archives points out in its discussion of naturalization records from a 1905 Report to the President of the Commission on Naturalization:
The methods of making and keeping the naturalization records in both the Federal and State courts are as various as the procedure in such cases. Thus the declaration of intention in some courts consists merely of the bare statement of the intention and the name and allegiance of the alien, while in other courts it also includes a history of the alien.... In a majority of courts alien applicants are not required to make the declaration of intention required by law ... and in other courts he is. Previous to 1903 a majority of courts did not require petitions or affidavits; other courts did. Some courts keep a naturalization record separate from the other records; other courts include the naturalization record in the regular minutes of the court. Some records contain full histories of the aliens, but a majority of the records show only the name, nationality, oath of allegiance, and date of admission.
The U.S. National Archives article further quotes from a 1903 Justice department investigation. See page 395 of the following book:

United States, Department of Justice, United States, Department of Justice, and Office of the Attorney General. 1871. “Annual Report of the Attorney General for the Year ...” Annual Report of the Attorney General for the Year ...

Here is the quote:
I find the naturalization records in many cases in a chaotic condition, many lost and destroyed, and some sold for old paper. Most the records consist of merely the name and nativity of the alien with no means of identifying aliens ofthe same name....In numerous cases I find aliens naturalized under initials instead of Christian names, surnames misspelled or changed entirely, and names of witnesses inserted in place of the alien naturalized....The examination of the records discloses the remarkable fact that never, since the first enactment of the naturalization laws, has any record been made in any court of the names of minor children who, under the operation of the statutes, were made citizens by the naturalization of their parents.
Notwithstanding this viewpoint, it is profitable to search the local court records for ancestors who indicated that they were naturalized in the U.S. Census schedules. 

1 comment:

  1. If only I could find one. I keep trying. Thanks for the post James.